Chris Mitchell gets philosophical with Patricia Duncker about her novel Hallucinating Foucault
“Madness, death, sexuality, crime; these are the subjects that attract most of my attention.” So said the late French philosopher Michel Foucault, one of the century’s most audacious intellectuals, who died of AIDS in 1984. Only Foucault’s books remain as a reminder of his existence – but, as Patricia Duncker’s stunning debut novel Hallucinating Foucault shows, the impact of reading on people’s lives can be both terrifying and self-transforming.
Originally published by independent publisher Serpent’s Tail last year, Hallucinating Foucault proved such a success that Picador recently bought the rights to the novel and reissued it. Such success might seem strange, given that few people outside of ivory towers have even heard of Foucault, but Duncker’s novel isn’t some dry academic text that needs to be painstakingly deciphered.
Hallucinating Foucault tells the story of Paul Michel, a celebrated French novelist who is so distraught at Foucault’s death that he becomes insane. The novel’s narrator is an English student studying Michel’s work who sets out to rescue the writer, so bringing the author’s words and the author’s world together in a dangerous mixture of intimacy, madness and self-discovery.
“I wanted it to be a love story,” Patricia Duncker reveals, “to explain the love between readers and writers. My life has been radically changed through the books I’ve read and I wanted to describe that.” However, Duncker was fully aware of the need to avoid alienating her audience. “I think your first duty as a writer is to your reader and you must keep them turning the page. What is the point otherwise?” As a result, Hallucinating Foucault has the feel of a cerebral thriller, combining the love story between Paul Michel and the narrator with the mystery of Paul Michel and Foucault’s relationship.
In blending the fictional character of Paul Michel with the memory of the real-life Michel Foucault, Duncker has created a novel which refuses simply to remain a story. It crosses over into real life – so much so that for some people, Paul Michel is now more real than Foucault ever was: “Most of the people who have read Hallucinating Foucault have never heard of Foucault. Some of them thought Paul Michel was real – one or two even tried to get hold of his novels. One reviewer in Manchester said the book was all old hat to him because his mother had produced a thesis on Paul Michel!”
Some of the novel’s most memorable and disturbing scenes centre around the narrator’s entry in the asylum to find Paul Michel. “I have a friend in France who’s worked with schizophrenics for the last 30 years,” Duncker says. “She’s seen the different ways that schizophrenia has been perceived during that time – because even now, no one really understands it, no one knows where it comes from. She holds an open clinic, so I visited her there with some trepidation and it was absolutely incredible. You always think that people who are off their heads are going to be just a little bit eccentric, but these people were absolutely mad – raving! But there was such a sense of community there; it was harrowing but quite beautiful, in a way.
“Paul Michel knows he’s mad and that’s common – mad people are completely aware that they’re raving, that they slide between sanity and insanity. I wanted the madness in Hallucinating Foucault to do justice to what I’d seen. It’s incredibly difficult to represent people who are living in a different time zone from you with respect and generosity – because you don’t want to present them as curiosities or freaks, which is what Foucault also strove to challenge in his work.”
The love between reader and writer is evident from Duncker’s enthusiasm when she talks about the French philosopher: “Foucault once said, ‘I wrote all my books to make boys fall in love with me.’ And I think there’s an element to that in all writing – books are messages in bottles. There was something about Foucault – his vanity, his shaved head, his looming presence – that indicated that he desperately wanted to be a writer rather than a philosopher. So the character of Paul Michel is the embodiment of some of Foucault’s unfulfilled desires. It’s my present to Foucault, in a way. I made the character of Paul Michel as handsome as James Dean and in love with him – what more could he want?!”